Uruguay

To Tannat, Or Not To Tannat?

24 July 2013

Pisano Licor de TannatSorry, Uruguay, to beat up on your signature grape, but I’ve never been very fond of Tannat. The handful of 100% Tannat varietal wines I tried over the years invariably disappointed, with tough and woolly tannins which other flavors and textures in the wine failed to balance. Now, to be fair, the only Tannats I tried in years past cost $10 or less, which means I’d most likely never sampled a Tannat of serious quality. I looked forward, therefore, to the Wines of Uruguay tasting at this year’s Wine Blogger Conference. Would these Tannats — surely some of the country’s best — change my mind? I felt skeptical.

The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to be of two minds about Tannat. It calls Madiran (a wine of southwestern France) “Tannat’s noblest manifestation,” but later goes on to say that Tannat “seems to thrive better in the warmer climate of its new home in South America than southwest France.” The Companion may hem and haw, but The World Atlas of Wine has no problem being direct, stating that “the Tannat produced in Uruguay is much plumper and more velvety than in its homeland in southwest France, and can often be drunk when only a year or two old — most unlike the prototype Madiran.” (Jancis Robinson wrote/co-wrote both books.)

Unfortunately, “plumper” and “more velvety” are relative terms, and they don’t really help answer the question of whether it’s generally a good idea to buy Uruguayan Tannat or not. My experience with Tannat is still far too meager to offer definitive advice, but I stand behind what I wrote in this blog post about a certain Tannat-based blend: Look for Tannat-based blends. In a blend, Tannat’s tannins are much likelier to be softer and more in balance.

With the additional experience of the Wines of Uruguay tasting, I would lengthen that advice to: Look for Tannat-based blends, or a Tannat varietal from a winery you trust. Which means you need a wine shop you trust, or you can trust this blogger and keep an eye out for one of these:

2011 Don Pascual Reserve Shiraz Tannat: Let’s ease into things with a 70% Shiraz/30% Tannat blend. The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia called “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This blend had an intriguing aroma of vanilla and black pepper, a velvety start on the tongue, a taut midsection and a tart, irony finish. Fruity, bright and pleasantly restrained, this wine was “not overblown, as I must admit I feared,” according to my (decidedly overblown) tasting notes.

2011 Bouza Tannat Reserva: You might have trouble finding this Tannat — it doesn’t even appear on the winery’s website. But if you do run across it, snap it up. I loved the enticing aroma of creamy raspberries, and the rich, up-front fruit on the palate. It grew into some black pepper spice before significant tannins came to the fore, but they weren’t overwhelming. I wrote that this was “as elegant a Tannat as I’ve ever found.”

2011 Giménez Méndez “Identity” Tannat: The “Identity” brand also doesn’t appear on Giménez Méndez’s website, but I would certainly keep an eye out for it. This Tannat sucked me in with its nose of dark, dusky fruit. Also restrained, this wine had a pleasing aromatic quality in the midsection, and serious but perfectly manageable tannins. Another fine Tannat.

2005 Pisano “Etxe Oneko” Licor de Tannat: The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also speaks highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” If that weren’t exciting enough, I discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of Port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano in the comments below) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed by, as you might expect, a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

Four winners in a row. I got off to a rocky start with Tannat, there is no question, but these wines have me seriously reconsidering. If you like big reds, and you’re in the mood for something a little different, you could do a lot worse than a well-crafted Uruguayan Tannat. And if you like Port, you could hardly do better than Pisano’s Etxe Oneko.

For some more about Uruguayan wine and reviews of some whites, check out this post.

The Unusual Whites Of Uruguay

20 July 2013

Don Pascual ViognierOne could be forgiven for imagining that all South American wine comes from Chile and Argentina, so successful have their export campaigns been. But Uruguay, that diminutive country northeast of Buenos Aires and south of Brazil, has also started to make its mark, producing whites and reds of real quality. Though it’s easier now than ever to find Uruguayan wines, “easier” is a relative term — few American wine shops carry more than one or two examples, if even that. And that’s not the fault of the shops.

The problem is the Uruguayans. They simply love wine, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to believed. “Domestic wine consumption is high,” according to the Companion, “and rising, currently standing at 32 l/8.45 gal per person per year.” For comparison, in France, domestic wine consumption stands at about 56 liters per person per year, and in the U.S. it’s about 10.5 liters per person per year. Uruguayans may not be total winos like the French, but their consumption is formidable nevertheless, sucking up about 95% of Uruguay’s wine output.

That leaves a scant 5% for export, and 60% of that heads across the border to Brazil (Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of us. And yet another problem, according to The World Atlas of Wine, is that most of Uruguay’s wineries are small, family-owned ventures, only 10% of which export any wine at all. The rest of Uruguay’s producers simply don’t have either the ability or the need to sell their wines outside of Uruguay.

All of which means that when you do see a wine from Uruguay on the shelf, you’ve discovered something rare, and it’s worth inquiring about. As the Atlas notes, Uruguayan vineyards benefit from cool Antarctic ocean currents, which usually fosters an ideal gradual ripening of the grapes. “The conditions and the will to produce both elegant and characterful wines are evident,” the Atlas goes on to say.

Alas, the Atlas also notes that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.” Only a handful of winemakers make the effort to do without herbicides and fungicides, which are “generally very widely needed and used to counteract rot and mildew.” This assertion seems to be in direct conflict with a presentation about Uruguayan wines I attended during this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. There, the presenter cheerfully claimed that “Uruguay has the third purest environment in the world, after Finland and Norway, except [Uruguay has] grapes!” My suspicion is that the environment of Uruguay as a whole may be unsullied, but that the vineyards, most of which are clustered around the capital, are less than chemical-free. (Update: See winemaker Daniel Pisano’s comment about this issue following this post.)

I prefer viticulture to be as organic as possible, but that’s not make-or-break for me when I select a wine. If I had to choose between an organic wine and a higher-quality non-organic wine, all else being equal, I’d buy the better non-organic wine. For those also willing to overlook the organic issue, here are four tasty Uruguayan whites I had the chance to sample during the conference. In the unlikely event you see one of these specific wines, that’s great, but since all of them were enjoyable, I recommend keeping your eye out for any whites from Uruguay.

2011 Don Pascual Viognier Reserve: The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This Viognier had a rather rubbery aroma, a lush texture, tart acids and notes of wood and green herbs. It’s not what I would expect from a Viognier, but then again, Uruguay isn’t the Rhône Valley!

2012 Bouza Albariño: The family-owned Bodega Bouza focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. No one could accuse this wine of being wimpy!

2012 Dante Irurtia Km. 0 “Rio de la Plata” Gewürztraminer Reserva: The Irurtia Family winery is one of Uruguay’s oldest; it harvested its first grapes a century ago in 1913. The Km. 0 brand indicates that the grapes were grown near the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, which creates a “unique microclimate,” notes the winery’s website. This wine had exactly the sort of aroma I like from my Gewürztraminers: perfumed, floral and minerally. Fruity and aromatic at the start, this wine desiccated into bone-dry minerals on the finish. Quite an enjoyable expression of the variety.

2013 Castillo Viejo Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc: Founded in 1927, this winery started the “fine wine” Catamayor label only in 1993, hoping to create world-class wines which would break into international markets. Certainly the Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc satisfied this international consumer. It reminded me of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a grassy-green aroma, juicy fruit and bright, citrusy acids. This wine was fun, and perfect for a hot summer day. Which rather makes me want to crack open a bottle right now…

Up next: To Tannat? Or not to Tannat?

The Witches Of Uruguay

10 November 2012

These days, almost everyone has tasted wines from Argentina at some point — its Malbec can be found almost anywhere — but that’s hardly the case for its neighbor, Uruguay. Although this little country on the north side of the Rio de la Plata is South America’s fourth-largest wine producer, you can’t just walk into a wine store and head to the Uruguayan section. Most of its vineyards, which average just 12.5 acres in size, are family owned, and similarly small-scale wineries have inconsequential marketing budgets. If you can actually find the wines, you’re paying more for what’s actually in the bottle and less for splashy ad campaigns.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some bad experiences with Uruguayan wines. I’ve only had two or three, but I can’t remember being excited about any of them. Now, after tasting a 2011 Giminez Mendez Las Brujas Tannat/Syrah/Viognier, I think I figured out what the problem. It’s the very signature grape of Uruguay: Tannat.

This exceedingly dark variety originated in southwest France, where it serves as the most important component of Madiran. As is common in France, the wines of Madiran are not varietals, they’re blends. But the Uruguayan wines I can recall trying were 100% Tannat, which meant that its tough and wooly tannins went unsoftened by any other grapes. In the unlikely event you happen upon a 100% Tannat, I recommend passing it by.

On the other hand, if you come across a Uruguayan blend, snap it up and give it a try. The southern part of the country, where Giminez Mendez and most other Uruguayan wineries make their homes, is well-suited to winemaking, with humid, sunny days mitigated by cool ocean currents from Antarctica.

Unfortunately, the humidity means party time for fungus and rot, making “organic viticulture virtually impossible,” according to the Atlas. Nevertheless, many wineries such as Giminez Mendez work to respect the environment, using a minimum of chemicals in the vineyards. Mendez also harvests all its fruit by hand, which means, theoretically, that only the ripest and best grapes make it into the wine.

The Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend I sampled certainly smelled enticingly ripe, with a jammy nose of dark currants. Made from fruit from vineyards in Las Brujas, which translates as “The Witches,” this wine was only 60% Tannat, but the tannins came through loud and proud. The wine started innocently enough, with rich, dark, lush fruit. But it gets a little rough in the middle, and before you know it, hefty tannins give you a slap, drying the mouth right out. It’s a bit of a wild ride! This is no Cary Grant of a wine; it’s more of an Axl Rose.

The label says it’s “ideal to drink in any occasion,” but the wine didn’t have great table manners either, becoming a little tart and overly spicy when paired with some pizza.

It’s not a wine to bring home to the parents, but when you’re in the mood to rebel a little and drink something rowdy, Giminez Mendez’s Las Brujas blend from Uruguay is your bad boy (or girl).

SUMMARY

2011 Giminez Mendez Las Brujas Tannat/Syrah/Viognier: Big up-front fruit, rough and tumble in the middle, and bracingly tannic on the finish. Acids afforded some measure of balance, but I’m not sure what food this wine would play well with. Maybe a hearty duck dish? Chill for 15 minutes in the refrigerator before serving, and give it some time to breathe.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this wine at In Fine Spirits for $12.50, a fine value indeed.

 

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